The Things They Stole, The Things They Couldn’t Find, And Her Heart

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“Fucking damned thing!” Kat yelled at her interface.
She ripped her headset off and tossed it against the wall. Then curled up into a fetal position, buried her face between her trembling hands and burst into tears.
They had met for the first time at one of those cafés. Kat felt so out of place, she did not have an implant and it made her feel almost invisible, a ghost among the living, filmy flesh traversed by breathing bytes. And yet she was there, wanted to be there. She had heard that there was a way to interact with the OneiricNetwork using wearables and a series of moderate electric shocks. Being tased out of immateriality into corporeal reality sounded harsh, but still better than having nanocarbon cables rooting, slowly growing, spreading inside her body. She imagined burning, painful light as a gate to everyone and everywhere. It was almost thrilling.
Kat had to try it.
Emily Reif, via Imagen
Welcome, Kat. What do you want to do today?
> Enter Fantasma → any Dream
There are seven hundred and fifty-three Dreams available that you can access at this moment.
Would you like me to list them? If not, please tell me the exact Dream you are looking for.
> Forget it
Okay. I forgot that input.
What do you want to do today?
> Nothing
Kat waited for a private booth to be available. No one noticed her fidgeting, still she wanted to appear cool and carefree, so she ordered a coffee to have something to do with her hands. It was bitter, but filled her with a sort of numbness. Would it feel similar wandering through the OneiricNetwork? To be visible?
“First time?” Someone asked.
“What?” Kat was not ready to be acknowledged by anyone.
“Kat, right? Is this your first time wired?” The unknown woman said while pointing at her right temple where a star shaped tattoo surrounded a scar.
Her hair was a rainbow. No. It was mother of pearl. Iridescent strands flowed from her head and danced over her shoulders. She wore a long silver earring in one ear and a matching stud in the other. There must have been a huge smile under the purple respirator that covered her mouth. Her eyes were violet, evident sign of an implant.
“Yeah.” Kat blushed.
“I’m Alicia. I’m gonna be your guide.” She winked.
The sparks of electricity were already flowing through Kat’s entire body.
Welcome, Kat. What do you want to do today?
> Enter Fantasma → any Dream
There are seven hundred and fifty-three Dreams available that you can access at this moment.
Would you like me to list them? If not, please tell me the exact Dream you are looking for.
> Forget it
Okay. I forgot that input.
What do you want to do today?
> Nothing
The booth was a small, well lit room with two comfy chairs, a server rack and what looked like an EKG machine. Alicia took a headset from the machine and put it over Kat’s eyes. She felt a tiny pinch on her temples. Then a bigger one with each needle piercing her forearms.
“I won’t lie to you, this is gonna hurt. A-fucking-lot. And you’re gonna feel like you can’t move. Don’t fight it. You’re doing this so you can move with your mind after all,” Alicia said. “If you’d gone wireless, you could roam both worlds at the same time, but this’ll do for now.”
Alicia held Kat’s hand.
“Let’s go for a stroll, then.”
She turned on the machine.
“It’s okay,” she said, noticing the discomfort in Kat’s face. “Let your body do its thing, let it feel. Concentrate on your mind. Focus on my hand.”
Kat felt every muscle of her body ache. Six hundred cramps in unison. Pain. Constant, unending pain.
Her hand.
“Hey, Kat! We’re both here together! Focus on my touch.” Alicia squeezed Kat’s hand so hard her knuckles turned pale.
Her heartbeat.
“Open your eyes, Kat.”
They were in a forest. The dim light filtering through the leaves disappeared like a time-lapse video. All sounds quiet down as night fell. A chartreuse flash appeared in the corner of Kat’s eye. Then another, hundreds of sparks. Fireflies glimmered and flickered around them. A glowing display of green and yellow stars barged into the night.
“Where are we?” Kat asked.
“In a Dream. Isn’t Tlaxcala a made-up place anyways?” Alicia laughed. “This is how it looked many years ago. Not many folks come to this secluded place because they think it’s boring, but it’s my haven. I could live here forever. Isn’t it beautiful?”
“It is.” Kat was looking at the emerald glow on Alicia’s face.
The electric shock pain was gone and replaced by exhilaration.
Welcome, Kat. What do you want to do today?
> Enter Fantasma → any Dream where I have an open session
Please wait while I access your memory data.
Thank you for waiting. You do not have an active open session in any Dream.
Would you like me to find more options?
> How about closed or inactive sessions?
You have two inactive sessions in Support.Dream. You have one closed session in Tlaxcala.Dream.
Should I keep looking?
> Tlaxcala... I'm such an idiot...
Invalid input.
> Reopen Tlaxcala.Dream
Password required.
> ffs - fuck you!
Alicia taught Kat how to roam through the OneiricNetwork. She took her to places that did not exist anymore but had been preserved in Dreams. Everything there was clearer, noisier, livelier than real life. Inside the network, Kat was not a ghost, she felt seen. Kat enjoyed the apparent physicality of her virtual body, the warmth of Alicia’s hands, the weight of her body, the rhythm of her heartbeat when they were one among the star-like light of the fireflies. Alicia was her haven.
“Did you hear? They’re closing all the cafés. You won’t be able to roam wired,” Alicia said one time. Dusk was falling and a chill descended on them. Darkness loomed.
“But I can’t. I won’t get an implant,” Kat said, her voice breaking.
“Don’t worry. I’m kinda in the process of making a different dream for us ghosts,” Alicia said with a laugh and winked.
“Can we just meet in person like the first time? You never came back!” Kat was already crying.
“But I did. I’ve always been here when you come. I don’t expect you to understand. My body is not in the same place as yours anymore and yet we’re here together. I can’t simply go to hold your hand there. I’m holding the whole of you here! I’m fucking your whole body here! I’m loving you here! Isn’t that enough? Isn’t that real?”
Alicia got up. Her mother of pearl hair danced in a gust of wind.
“Everything and everywhere is made-up. Come find me under the fake stars when you’re ready to understand, mi corazón.” Alicia drew a heart shape in the air.
Kat watched her disappear between the trees. Only her tears and the flutter of firefly wings remained.
Emily Reif, via Imagen
Welcome, Kat. What do you want to do today?
> Enter Fantasma → Tlaxcala
Would you like to create a new session?
> No - Reopen closed session
Password required.
> *******
Incorrect password.
Try again.
> *********
Incorrect password.
Please, check if your password is correct. It is case-sensitive.
> *********
Welcome to Tlaxcala.Dream. Where do you want to go?
> The firefly sanctuary
When Kat returned to the café, its windows and doors were boarded up. She did not know where to go. Invisible again—almost dead—Kat wandered the city for hours.
She realized she did not know much about the Alicia outside of the OneiricNetwork. And yet, she felt she knew her deeply. She loved her and her hands and her mother of pearl hair and her body and the way she fucked, and all the places they went and the things they did. Because they felt real. They were real.
A box was waiting for her when she returned home. Tu corazón written over it with black marker, the o’s were shaped as hearts. Inside, there was a purple velvet pouch, a wearable headset, an SSD stamped all over with star stickers, and a note: “Made-up places inside. Ghosts welcome. Enter, fantasma.”
Alicia’s physical belongings were in the pouch. A broken respirator, her favorite earrings, a blank notebook and the implant. There was nothing else left of her. She was gone.
Welcome, Kat. What do you want to do today?
> Enter Fantasma → Open most recent session → *********
Welcome to FireflySanctuary.Tlaxcala.Dream. What do you want to do?
> Find a user
Enter a username and a relationship code.
> Alicia - mi corazón
User found.
Initiating link.
Link stablished.
> Are you there?
♥︎@ first time?
> OMG! Is it really you?
♥︎@ took you long enough
> Where are you? What’s this place?
♥︎@ i’m here with you. isn’t that enough?
> No. I want to hold you, kiss you.
♥︎@ how do you kiss a ghost inside a dream?
> Why did you send your stuff? Don’t you need the implant?
♥︎@ it’s yours now. try it on. it might fit
> Where are you?
♥︎@ under the fake stars, as promised, as always. now let your body do its thing. let it feel. concentrate on your mind. focus on my heartbeat *thump-thump, thump-thump*
♥︎@ open your eyes
Memory limit reached.
The system will restart in 3 seconds.
Kat was afraid, but not scared. She thought she understood what had happened to Alicia, why she never came back to the café. She wanted to cry but her tears did not come.
She plugged the SSD into her computer, put on the headset, and listened for a heartbeat.
Welcome, Kat. What do you want to do today?
> Enter Fantasma
Nelly Geraldine García-Rosas is a Mexican immigrant and a graduate of the Clarion West class of 2019. Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Lightspeed, Nightmare, Strange Horizons, the World Fantasy Award-winning anthology She Walks in Shadows, and elsewhere. She can be found online at and on Twitter as @kitsune_ng.